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  • A Report from the Field:Georgia’s War against Contraband and Its Struggle for Territorial Integrity
  • Theresa Freese (bio)

On Nov. 22, 2004, the eve of the first anniversary of Georgia's 2003 "Rose Revolution," President Mikheil Saakashvili reiterated the supreme goal of his presidency: "to reunite Georgia." Portions of the country remain beyond the control of the central government in Tbilisi, with separatist regions supported by the help of regional hegemon Russia and a substantial black market trade. Halting the flow of smuggled goods and keeping Russia at bay are key to restoring Georgia's territorial integrity.

The charismatic Saakashvili came to power after his supporters—democracy-touting, Western-oriented youth—ousted former President Eduard Shevardnadze's corrupt regime, heralding the arrival of a leadership promising to combat crime and corruption, restore the country's territorial unity, and solve the many associated economic and governance problems.

True to his dramatic style, Saakashvili promised to fulfill these aims by swearing his presidential oath on the tomb of David the Builder, a 12th century king who famously united Georgia. Saakashvili achieved early success when Aslan Abashidze, the long-standing, authoritarian leader of Adjara—an autonomous region that flirted with declaring independence—fled to Moscow in April 2004 following economic and political pressures combined with popular demonstrations. Saakashvili then scheduled the return of the breakaway—yet unrecognized—republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, in that order. The opening salvos of his campaign targeted the contraband trade, and his government began this work right after his January 2004 inauguration by controversially blowing up "contraband roads" branching out from South Ossetia.

"Georgia will be completely free only when the most beautiful flag in the world, the five-cross flag, flies at Roki tunnel and Psou," Saakashvili [End Page 107] said in a reprise of his inauguration promises during the recent anniversary address.

Saakashvili's reference to Roki and Psou, two key border points between the breakaway republics and Russia, is significant: it highlighted the concern that Georgia will not be truly sovereign until it controls its borders with Russia. The only paved roads running from Russia (which paid for their construction) through the Caucasus Mountains to the South Ossetian and Abkhazian capitals of Tskhinvali and Sukhumi, respectively, go by way of Roki and Psou. These "contraband roads" are economic and political lifelines for Georgia's secessionist republics, bridging the mountain divide and carrying Russian products to residents. If blocked, the republics would be isolated, with only Georgia to turn to. Pointing to Russia's heavy financial, political and (alleged) military support for the separatist republics, Georgia complains that it cannot install customs units, border guards or checkpoints inside Ossetian, Abkhazian or Russian-controlled territories and claims that Russia allows a wide assortment of goods and people to pass unnoticed into them.

Once they pass Roki and Psou, the movement of private citizens (or troops) is near impossible to control—and so is contraband. Georgian customs, police and state security officials report that as long as this situation persists, they lose tariff income to the tune of millions annually. (Although no precise figures exist, they claimed losses of $150 million for 2004, or 3 percent of the total Georgian budget.) Further, Georgia cannot verify—or end—Russia's activities within the regions or combat the crime and corruption in the breakaway territories until it is able to monitor the border points. The rebel South Ossetian leadership has rejected outright any negotiations on this point. Saakashvili has offered the republics the "widest possible autonomy" within Georgia; however, both republics rebuff this proposal.

Russia's implicit support for the separatist republics prolongs their unresolved status, fuels separatist leaders' ambitions, and prevents Georgia from achieving its aim of becoming a Western-style democracy with the possibility of joining NATO and the European Union. Indeed, Russia backed these regions both during and after their wars in the early 1990s that led to today's de facto independence. Moreover, Russia's continued intervention in these republics' affairs threatens to lead to full Abkhazian and South Ossetian secession, which would severely weaken and destabilize Georgia. Only the threat of a similar loss of Chechnya appears to prevent Russia from outright...


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